Culture is an intricate part of any small business environment. Culture and strategy can be explained as two sides of the same coin. They influence each other and, in coordination, they drive the brand, the systems, and the results. How effective a company is, how viable it will remain to be, and how vital its work is to those it serves are all dictated by culture and strategy. So, as a leader, culture and strategy are vital tools to help drive your business forward with intention and purpose.
Despite robust research and a general consensus among experts on the importance of culture, the majority of businesses lack an emphasis on culture. Why is that? Some sources have cited that culture is widely accepted as “nice to have” but is not seen as vital.1 Others believe that leaders have a tendency to export this function to the human resources department or other peripheral departments, which then stops culture from being foundational.2
This is especially true for dentistry. As small business owners, especially ones who may be lacking formal training in business, we often feel overwhelmed. Working in our businesses can stop us from adequately working on our businesses. This can contribute to burnout or trajectory paralysis. After all, if payroll does not get submitted on time, that can absolutely impact a business immediately.
But if a dentist doesn’t get around to defining strategy or holding a culture-building exercise with the team, the world of that practice will continue to turn. The impacts of this are subtle, silent even. Oftentimes we recognize the importance of these “higher function” activities and we enlist the help of a team member. This is a great way to ensure that culture building happens regularly. As Mindy Hall, author of Leading with Intention, puts it, “Leadership and organizational culture are inextricably linked.”3 When the culture is not built central to the leadership, it withers, it becomes expendable, or most importantly, it fails to land. Leaders, through both intentional choice and unconscious action, build their company culture and act it out.
The first step toward creating a culture for your practice is defining it. This is best done through strategy. Strategic planning will provide a well thought out, written logic structure for the practice’s goals. Then culture will turn these goals into an expression, a dynamic view into the beliefs and values of the company through action.2
You can define your company culture by answering some core questions.
- Why does this practice exist? Why do we do what we do?
- Who do we intend to serve? How will we serve them?
- What is our vision for the practice? Who do we hope to grow into?
- What do we want our legacy to be?
Once you have sorted through these questions, you can effectively create the practice’s mission and vision statements. These statements should be unique enough to identify your practice from a lineup. If they do not use phrases and sentiments novel enough to do that, they will not effectively belong to you, nor will they be powerful enough to impact the culture you’re trying to build.
Culture is connected with people
Strategy is set by leadership, but the beauty of culture is that it blends the vison of the leadership with the ideas of patients, team, and community. This is the magic that allows your practice culture to truly transform into the face of your company. Culture is connected closely with the people in your practice—those whom you serve with and those whom you serve.
Team and culture—Once you have set a direction with strategic planning, it is important to receive buy-in from your team. A great way to help them be a part of the culture is to center a team meeting around finalizing the mission statement, values, and vision. If you approach the team with an original draft but allow them to truly contribute, this will help the culture evolve to reach all of your team members and, through them, your patients.
After all, the heart of your culture resides in the hands of your team. Renee Baiorunos, vice president at LeaderFit, says, “Your organizational culture is about the agreements your team has, either intentionally or organically, made with each other over time. These simple agreements become entrenched across the organization and either allow or inhibit the team to be successful in their day-to-day work.”1 Team meetings and engaging the team to make decisions and establish identity are good ways to help create robust agreements from the get-go.
Patients, community, and culture—These tools to define culture can also be used to help define your ideal patient pool (those you wish to serve). By combining these strategic elements with your marketing plan, you can build the identity of the practice and your patient population effectively. A few questions that can help use culture to target your marketing efforts are:
- Who do we intend to serve? How will we serve them?
- Where do these people live? Where do they get their information? Where do they spend their time?
- What are their needs?
- Who do we need to be in order to best serve them and address these needs?
Culture is connected with action
When culture is set on paper, it remains as strategy. Culture is a shared experience, a group phenomenon. It impacts on multiple levels, and is dynamic and implicit.2 Therefore, by its very nature, culture requires action to be intentional.
Culture resides in small details such as how your team and patients feel while in your practice, how fluid and open communication is in your team, how safe people feel when interacting with your business, how engaged your employees are, and how trusted you are as a leader. Therefore, intentional actions such as setting and articulating clear expectations and training in communication and trust can impact the culture significantly. The list of actions is endless. In fact, it can be considered infinite. Some experts suggest that culture is the culmination of all of your actions as a leader. Every action you and, by proxy, your team take shapes the culture ever so slightly. Therefore, culture is ever-changing. It evolves and grows as your business grows.1
What are some actions you can take as a leader to solidify your practice culture?
Celebrations and awards—Many companies have annual celebrations for their employees that include handing out a founder’s award. (It can be called many different things.) This award is given to the team member who best exemplifies the company culture. It can be something small, as long as it is coveted. For example, a group dental practice in Kentucky awards deer antlers that are painted gold. This prize was the original founder’s award given when the practice was small, and it was built by the founder himself. The legacy and history of this award makes it extremely coveted even though the practice has grown exponentially. As long as the award is meaningful, it is an impactful way to reinforce the company’s core values and reward members who effectively contribute to the culture.
Group activity and intentional thought—This can be small or big, intended for team members or the community, frequent or annual. As long as the event adequately tells your company’s story and acts on your company’s values, it will help to reinforce the culture. Some ideas include volunteering as a team, hosting a block party for patients and local businesses, hosting the local chamber of commerce for an educational event at your practice, sponsoring and attending the games of local high school sports teams, sending flowers to a patient who recently lost a partner, and buying a pizza for each of your team members to take home to their families when your schedule runs late.
Culture is connected with outcomes
A strong body of research shows that culture is consequential; a robust culture can impact results and the eventual success of a business.2 Because culture is dynamic and constantly changing, the challenge is that what worked to create results in the past may not work in the future. This is why a regular overview of your practice culture and how it is being lived is important. This keeps a pulse point on key factors such as brand, system operations, and quality of care. Research that gives longitudinal data about organizational culture and its link to performance shows that consistency is key. Consistently reinforcing the values of the company from the top down and consistently monitoring the impact of the culture strategies is the best way to ensure results.4
For dentistry, culture is a complex and essential part of the business because our work is incredibly impactful and intimate. Culture is an amalgamation of our practice philosophy, our role in our community, our impact on the lives of patients and team, and our worldview. The work we do is so much more than a job—it’s a calling, and that makes the culture we create that much more pervasive.
1. Baiorunos R. Why organizational culture is the most powerful, practical tool for impact and what to do about it. Forbes. June 6, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesnonprofitcouncil/2017/06/06/why-organizational-culture-is-the-most-powerful-practical-tool-for-impact-and-what-to-do-about-it/#63791e872907
2. Goysberg B, Lee J, Price J, Cheng JYJ. The leader’s guide to corporate culture. Harvard Business Review. January-February 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-culture-factor
3. Hall M. Leading your culture: Four key areas leaders should focus on. Leader to Leader. Physician Assistant Education Association. https://paeaonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/1c.pdf
4. Pontefract D. If culture comes first, performance will follow. May 25, 2017. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danpontefract/2017/05/25/if-culture-comes-first-performance-will-follow/#5a0d29d66e62
AMISHA SINGH, DDS, is a clinical assistant professor and the acting director of diversity at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. She serves on the Colorado Dental Association (CDA) house of delegates, the American Dental Association (ADA) dental well-being advisory committee, and the ADA national advisory committee on health literacy in dentistry. She is the CDA new dentist committee chair for Colorado. Dr. Singh is also a blogger and professional speaker who works with IgniteDDS to inspire other dental professionals.